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Nkem Ndem: The Dark Side Of Moving and Living Abroad

Nkem Ndem

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Many days have since passed, still, I can’t shake off the dreadful feeling that came with the early hours of October 20, 2020. I remember waking up and reaching for my phone, only to see messages from my friend’s wife telling me that the peaceful protesters at Lekki, Lagos, had been shot at by members of the Nigerian Army, leaving some protesters injured, and others murdered in cold blood. The protests, which had begun to demand an end to police brutality and harassment of citizens by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), had escalated into the harrowing hashtag: #LekkiMassacre.

The thought of those innocent citizens lying there, helpless as a result of fighting for what was rightfully theirs, brought on a strong wave of anxiety – the kind that prickles your armpits, triggers nervous farts from your belly, and hits you with such nausea that you have to viciously grind your teeth to keep it from pouring out of you. There was also the recurring thought that it could easily have been me. I stay in Lekki Phase 1 whenever I am in Lagos, and I had friends who had been regularly going to the protests. It could have been me.

Seeing as it was about 8 AM for me in Japan, but midnight (the previous day) in Nigeria, I couldn’t reach anyone until much later in the day. The first person I called was my favourite sister, Promise. Then the rest of my family and close friends. Thankfully, they were safe. Speaking with one of my friends, however, a comment he made bugged me a lot. He said, “Ah! My dear, you are so lucky you are not in Nigeria. Living abroad is the dream, I can’t wait to leave this country so that I can be happy in life, I swear.”

Sigh.

I wanted to say, “My dear, not all that glitters is gold,” but I knew he would only see it as me being ungrateful. I mean, when you live and work abroad, you can’t complain to friends back home because, in their mind, you live the perfect life: beautiful weather, earning in dollars, 24 hours electric power supply, and good healthcare. How dare you complain?

Following the turn of events in Nigeria with the protests, some Nigerians on social media have also comically indicated their readiness to leave Nigeria for countries such as Canada, Australia, Italy (thanks to the Oloture movie), and even Ghana—anything to escape the rot that is the Nigerian system. To be fair, I get it. But then I have to say, “Look before you leap.”

The idea of living abroad is often glamourised by the media, and we sometimes picture a perfect life filled with exciting adventures, unstinting opportunities for financial or career growth, the wonder and excitement of a new culture, food, people, and language, and so on. But the truth is that living abroad is great until it isn’t. Over time, the excitement and awe start to wear off.  The food that was once exotic becomes ordinary and utterly tasteless; the pressures of work combined with the herculean task of finding new friends and building a social life start to weigh you down; the unending list of bills make you want to ask if ‘na only you waka come’; and the loneliness chokes you so badly that life doesn’t just become less exciting, it also gets overwhelming and unbearable.

No one really tells you that relocating to another country comes with its own set of difficulties and concerns that, if not fully dealt with, can slowly lead to serious mental health challenges. In the last 4 years, I have moved to and lived in 3 different countries, and I can tell you for sure that if someone had previously told me that I would ever get to the point of dealing with depression or any kind of mental health issue, I could have spat in such person’s face for even thinking it. I mean, I am the strongest person I have ever met – emotionally and mentally.

My decision to move, live, and work abroad was meant to be a solution to the massive burnout I suffered from working multiple jobs in Lagos and still earning what I considered a pittance. I was so relieved when we landed at Yangon airport, Myanmar, for my first overseas job that tears welled up in my eyes. Now that I think about it, I guess that sense of relief was the reason I remained oblivious to the symptoms of depression until it escalated to the point of triggering an anxiety disorder as well.

I recall that for about three months before the night I became fully aware of the situation, I hadn’t been sleeping well and was always exhausted. I had no energy, my patience level was significantly lower than usual, and I suffered a lack of appetite while also managing constipation that could not be abated by Tums. Then there were the episodes of shallow breathing (I even went to the hospital to have my lungs x-rayed). I was getting more emotionally fragile and highly unmotivated with everything. I lost interest in socializing and that slowly bred what I prefer to call an existential crisis. The crisis came with major intrusive thoughts that life was purposeless, hopeless, had no meaning and there was no rational reason to keep living. It was insane. The thoughts of death and dying were unending. As much as I knew I would never harm myself, I found myself starting to empathize with people who commit suicide. I thought, if they were ever mentally burdened the way that I was at the time, then maybe they were justified.

Of course, at the time, I wasn’t sure why all that was happening to me. I didn’t understand it so I could not talk to anyone about it. I think, to an extent, I was also ashamed of my thoughts. The most chilling part of it all was that I wasn’t myself for all that time and no one noticed. Not my family. Not my friends back home. No one. And yes, that’s another thing – when you move, your family and friends chat you up and FaceTime you like there’s no tomorrow for like the first one or two months, but as time goes, they kind of stop. Perhaps, the time difference doesn’t help.

The panic attack that shook me into awareness came that night out of the blues. No trigger. Nothing at all. I just remember that I woke up abruptly from sleep, my heart was beating ultra-fast, and a still small voice in my head said, “This is it, you are about to die now, say your last prayers.” It was the most intense panic attack I have ever experienced to date, and I would not wish it on anyone, not even my enemy. I wasn’t sure how I got to my neighbor’s apartment, but luckily she was awake. She was, of course, terrified as I knocked on her door in my underwear. She called the ambulance and they came, but before we got to the hospital, I was beginning to feel better.  The nurses did a full bodywork as well and said I was fine. Then, after a series of questioning by the doctor, I was prescribed some anxiety medication, and scheduled to see a resident psychiatrist.

I initially opposed the idea of seeing a psychiatrist, not because of any stigma, but because it would cost me $250 per session and it wouldn’t be covered by my health insurance. The schedule I was given was also a bit loaded. I eventually caved in and after a few sessions, she determined it was ‘expat depression.’ Further sessions and study of my symptoms also determined I had an additional anxiety disorder – all from starting life in a new country. Who would have thought this was a thing?

I opened up to a few friends earlier this year about my experience and how I dealt with it all, and I found that one who relocated to Canada and others who live and work in some other parts of the world also had similar experiences but never talked about it for fear of being tagged ‘weak.’

Sigh.

I think it is a shame that we do not talk enough about the depression that comes with moving abroad or just the mental health side of it. It is something people have been and will continue to deal with. No one is immune when it comes to stress and mental health issues. Being aware of it and knowing others who are going through it, or have gone through it, can be helpful.

My experience and those of my friends are probably unique to people who move abroad alone and for work purposes. Perhaps the experience may be different for people who move abroad to continue their education or people who move with their family. While I cannot speak for all situations, I have to say that if you are planning on relocating abroad for any reason at all, please manage your expectations. Do not imagine a chop life situation, expect it to be challenging. Research properly and ask people who moved to your intended location questions about coping with life and the standard of living there. Doing that will help you shape the right mindset. Next, ensure you prioritize self-care when you eventually move so that you are able to face the challenges that each day brings. Remember to sleep and exercise. Recognize depression if or when it sets in, and seek help at the earliest opportunity. You can keep up with friends and family at home as much as possible, but also try going out and making new friends locally. Finally, know that there is no shame in running home if you find that you can’t cope. Your happiness and sanity matters.

Nkem Ndem is an energetic and highly accomplished Media Consultant who loves to help small businesses, especially women-led, grow their online presence using the right digital strategy or transition from traditional organizational boundaries. With years of experience in Copywriting and Editing, Content Branding and Strategy, Social media, and Digital Marketing, she is clearly obsessed with Digital Communications. She is the Head of Content and Lead Consultant at Black Ink Media - an Ideation and Content Agency that excels in providing fresh, creative digital services to content-centric businesses. Find out more about her at www.blackinkm.com or send her an e-mail at [email protected] Also follow her on IG: @nkemndemv, Twitter: @ndemv.

31 Comments

  1. Lynda

    November 2, 2020 at 10:34 am

    I can relate so very well. My New York days had its ups and downs. Weird how you miss Naija when you leave but hate it when you’re there.

    23
  2. Adeniyi

    November 2, 2020 at 10:35 am

    Well Many of us still want to experience this so called better life since our country has refused to provide the basic things to survive. I agree with all the points of not ignoring your mental health… Armed with this, I will still leave this country.

    22
  3. Eric

    November 2, 2020 at 11:04 am

    There’s no escaping life’s challenges. This is so enlightening and so saddening at the same time.

    8
  4. olu

    November 2, 2020 at 12:47 pm

    God bless you for this write up! If people know the rate at which black people suffer mental health issues in the developed countries! Black men esp are 17 TIMES more likely to suffer mental health issues than whites in the UK! Some women I know of in the UK work round the clock just to get away from reality!

    10
  5. Babaehi Palmer

    November 2, 2020 at 12:49 pm

    If only they know what some of us face over here, it’s not easy to live abroad with your family. That’s the most depressed state ever, things change and when kids start coming, only God can help you. At the end, it’s important to always plan and finally make up your mind before leaving Nigeria. Abroad life na pay as you go, everything here is per second billing, at the end of each month once your debit orders goes off, you’re left with little or nothing at all. That’s if you’ve got a paying job or self employed business is paying well, otherwise, the struggle is depression and anger. Let’s pray for wisdom, grace and guidance.

    9
  6. Adaeze Writes

    November 2, 2020 at 12:58 pm

    Beautiful read. The grass is not always greener on the other side. However, for those who choose to take this path, your write up comes in handy. Thank you for sharing and I hope you are doing much better now.

    3
  7. Mariamah

    November 2, 2020 at 1:00 pm

    I have always known of this, and it is one of the reasons why i have been dragging my feet about relocating. But note that you cannot tell this to the average Nigerian that is seeking to relocate.

    5
  8. Amaa

    November 2, 2020 at 1:16 pm

    This is why most new immigrant tend to move to where they have majority of there kinsmen living eg Indians and Nigerians in Brampton or Nigerians in Mississauga Canada , or Peckham for Nigeria’s and the Afro Caribbean’s , Indians and Pakistanis in Birmingham UK.
    Wherever you find your self look for someone within your network that could be a connect to the city or town you live in it helps a lot .
    Your social life is key plug in to church mosques or any religious organization that offer new commer programs that is the first step to integration and making new friend.

    10
  9. Dimma

    November 2, 2020 at 1:46 pm

    I had a similar experience late last year when I traveled outside the country for further studies. The first month was so beautiful, I was beginning to conclude that I made the best decision leaving the country.

    By the second month, anxiety and depression were slowly creeping in silently. Irritability, restlessness among other symptoms of anxiety and depression mislead me into ending a beautiful relationship. A few days later, I was able to understand what I was suffering from but it was already too late to make things right.

    10
  10. Naomi C

    November 2, 2020 at 2:15 pm

    Spot on. The first two years after I left Nigeria were the hardest. As Lynda put it, I was happy to have left Nigeria but I missed it terribly at the same time. And also realizing that the America on screen didn’t live up to the hype in reality was depressing. But I think the point you’re making is that we all need to take better care of our mental health wherever we find ourselves. It’s important to keep the “lifelines” open and always have people that you trust that you can reach out to and talk about anything.

    8
  11. Nene

    November 2, 2020 at 2:23 pm

    I can relate – if you move with family the experience may be different but when you move here alone, then you’ll totally relate- I have my days as well but people at home will never understand.

    5
  12. Chimdinma Ogbuagu

    November 2, 2020 at 2:54 pm

    Hmmmmm… I completely get you, the feelings empathy of suicide….. What I wonder is this.. Is it not possible to channel all this energy to go abroad to improve life in Nigeria. Forget the government, they are clueless.. Light, security, stable internet etc.. If we come together as communities and leverage (like we did at the protests) can’t we solve these problems.. Cos you know what? Everyone cannot travel abroad last, last….

    8
  13. Charlotte adjei

    November 2, 2020 at 2:54 pm

    Yeah it an open for me , I’ve always wanted to relocate but wen I tink of de life challenges abroad enh it scares me to death,u did a gud job by sharing dis

    7
  14. MB

    November 2, 2020 at 2:57 pm

    I experienced this when I moved to CA for my Masters program 21 years ago. I cried everyday for the first 8 months until I finally made 1 true friend whose family took me as one of their own…then life got better but was still not perfect because one will always miss home even till now, I miss my home country. Our country needs to get better and guarantee its citizens BASIC human rights – education, healthcare, etc., but until then, I totally understand this brain drain.

    5
  15. Mo

    November 2, 2020 at 3:52 pm

    I can absolutely relate. This article sums up my experience since moving to the US. Unfortunately you can’t discuss it with friends and family back home because they can’t seem to relate or understand why you should be depressed when you live in a country where things “seemingly” works. So you smile through it until you can’t any longer.

    8
  16. Abi O’Sumbo

    November 2, 2020 at 4:22 pm

    Relocating abroad is one big experience I have had, so many nights of tears at the beginning at that point the challenges set in especially when you have or know no one but you just landed to find your feet on a foreign land, escaping from your own fatherland where human lives don’t mean a thing to the government of the land , depression, loneliness is real abroad , finding good circle of friends/people is another thing , you can’t fathom your strength I mean how strong you are until you overcome whatever class of disorder you find your self…. moving abroad with one mind/life isn’t enough , come prepared with extra mind/life that could help anyone willing

    3
  17. Tosin

    November 2, 2020 at 5:34 pm

    Good article. I agree with the author that living abroad has its challenges. I should know, I live in the US myself.
    I do feel like this article heavily focused on the personal outcome that the author suffered (which should not be discountenanced) and not enough on the causative factors. I would like to see a followup article that delves into the factors that make living aboard such a struggle so that people can be more aware of the different challenges that can lead to depression.

    12
  18. Grace

    November 2, 2020 at 5:57 pm

    Been abroad 8years, and I still struggle with this. Some days are better than others.

    9
  19. Daniel Eugene

    November 2, 2020 at 6:02 pm

    It’s so depressingly devastating to say the least…that a Military will open fire on its own citizens that they swore to protect.. I remembered the horrible incident on the 20th of October, 2020 so well that I feel goosebumps whenever I think about it…

    A lot of positive restructuring needs to be implemented ASAP…

    I must also commend all the grave youths that protested, especially offline and my condolences to all those who lost their lives on that day.

    On the aspect of travelling abroad, I feel like I can achieve anything I want in Nigeria and if I must travel abroad, It would only be for vacation..

    5
  20. Peewee

    November 2, 2020 at 6:36 pm

    I moved abroad in January and corona virus hit in March, it’s been a long and depressing journey. I moved to join my husband but its not been easy, i worked 8 -4 in Nigeria but i am now home fully and hubby works from home. Been trying to get an online job without success, i miss my family and friends badly, I made few friends so far, not like we talk daily. Some days i do not want to get up. Well I made a schedule that involves my online class, studying the Bible and household chores, i am holding up so far but whenever i get a call from home, I throw the schedule to the side and gist for hours.

    2
  21. Chinwe

    November 2, 2020 at 9:46 pm

    Thanks Nkem Ndem for this. It seems to me there’s no I could truly explain to people that it’s not all rosy here.
    Being a single lady who has always kept to herself back in Nigeria, it was really difficult at a point. I had no social life. I was forced to step out of my comfort zone and make few friends in order to maintain my sanity.
    Though it still gets lonely, I also focused on being continually grateful and thankful to God in order to maintain a positive mindset.
    Definitely, everywhere has its pros and cons. The best thing is to create your happiness where you are.

    3
  22. Elle

    November 2, 2020 at 9:56 pm

    @Adeniyi,
    No one is asking you not to. It’s your choice after all.

    Thanks Nkem for this, I totally totally get it.

    2
  23. Elle

    November 2, 2020 at 9:59 pm

    BN, it appears the Reply button isn’t working. Thanks.

  24. Ibukun

    November 2, 2020 at 11:34 pm

    I can relate with this write-up. Everyone thinks you are fine and enjoying life while you’re probably dying in silence… Wisdom is needed

    3
  25. STELLA

    November 3, 2020 at 9:37 am

    OH MY GOD…
    SOME OF US HAS ALREADY MADE UP OUR MINDS ON TRAVELING ABROAD ETHER GOOD OR BAD..GOD PLEASE HELP US OOOO

  26. Ameenat

    November 4, 2020 at 3:49 am

    I’m happy to be called your friend; Nkem…..😀😀😀😀…. Such a beautiful write up. See U soon dear

  27. Charity

    November 4, 2020 at 7:33 am

    Well..you ve spoken well God will help us. I believe that i don’t need to travel out to make it in life..I must make it in Nigeria.. Others wey dey make
    am na d same head we get..but me the grace Nd mercy of God will speak for me..must make am nii

    1
  28. Prom prom

    November 4, 2020 at 2:00 pm

    Aaaaaaw kemmy love, you are such a strong woman. I’m just speechless about this whole picture you just painted. Amazing write up. Stay strong. #sistersforlife

  29. Stan

    November 7, 2020 at 6:36 am

    Nkem – Such a relevant piece, especially in these times. Definite reminder to lead with empathy and make space for the people you care about, while also finding a way to maintain peace. As far as living abroad, I keep thinking, Had we known then what we know now haha. Thanks for sharing ✨

  30. Ubio Obu

    November 7, 2020 at 3:43 pm

    I’m writing this from outside the country I agree totally with what you said, as I have experienced some, but I will still advice people to leave Nigeria if and when they can. The mere fact that we have constant light, cheap data, good roads, good healthcare system, water, and most especially security in these places etc is enough reason for any person to leave Nigeria.

    1
  31. Folakemi

    November 20, 2020 at 8:03 am

    Thanks for this amazing write up Nkem ! God bless you ! People don’t seem to understand when you explain this to them . I studied abroad for a year few years back and my perspective changed completely since , I literally ran back home the first chance I got . Now , with persuasion from close friends I got the opportunity to relocate abroad again recently, I’ve been really dragging my feet . My family is here & im extremely family oriented . Expat depression is real ! And I’m just wondering if it’s worth going through that feeling again . It’s really bitter sweet ! And I don’t know if the trade off is worth one’s mental health

    3

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